The Houston Rockets find themselves winless after two games, with some of their players still out because of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. After receiving a light punishment for violating those protocols, All-Star guard James Harden played in the team’s first two games despite reports he's looking for a way out to try to play for another title contender.
After opening the season with losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets, there are no indications Harden has changed his mind about leaving. The Rockets, meanwhile, are still discussing a possible trade for the 2018 MVP, as their trade demands have yet to be met by potential suitors.
But despite a winless record and a COVID-19 outbreak that forced some of their key players to quarantine and miss their first few games, there’s reason for optimism in Clutch City regarding Harden. The 31-year-old has looked incredible out of the gate despite a chaotic offseason, and he could still give the Rockets a chance to contend in the Western Conference with this type of performance.
With the Rockets missing new acquisitions John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Gordon in their season opener against the Trail Blazers, they weren’t given much of a chance to compete against a team that got considerably better in the offseason. Even if Harden was given the green light to play, there were concerns about his conditioning, especially after spending days in quarantine before the game.
But once the game began, the eight-time All Star put those concerns to rest by finishing with 44 points on 12-of-21 shooting and a career-high-tying 17 assists in 43 minutes of play in a 128-126 overtime loss. Not only did Harden look good once he stepped on the court, but he also made his teammates look good, with big man Christian Wood, another offseason acquisition, being as good as advertised with 31 points on 14-of-22 shooting while adding 13 rebounds and three assists.
Houston dressed nine players against Portland, just one more than the league minimum for a game not to be postponed, and almost pulled off a win against a team expected to contend for a playoff spot in the West.
Against the Nuggets, the Rockets once again had nine players and ended up absorbing their second straight defeat, 124-111. Even in the loss, however, Harden was his usual productive self, leading Houston with 34 points on 10-of-16 shooting with six rebounds and eight assists. Wood also showed that his first game in a Rockets uniform was no fluke, finishing with 23 points, three rebounds, two assists, and two blocks.
After the game, another encouraging sign for the Rockets was how Harden was all praises for Silas and his coaching:
“He [Silas] did a great job,” Harden said after the loss, according to Mark Medina of USA TODAY Sports. “Very confident, knew what he was drawing up and knew where to put his guys at.”
Despite a rocky start to his head coaching tenure in Houston, which included Harden missing the first few days of training camp while he was partying, Silas appreciated the compliment:
“He [Harden] has been committed since he’s been here,” Silas said of the former Sixth Man of the Year. “He’s been great in practice, good to talk to and listening, asking good questions, pulling me to the side and telling me things he sees.”
It will be a long season, and Harden leaving the team where he established himself as a star and one of the league’s best players is still the most likely scenario. A string of disappointing losses could still change the team's situation and hasten his departure.
But in the team’s first two games of the season, he reminded everyone of how good he can be, and why it is difficult to meet the asking price for a player of his caliber. While Harden's recent play shouldn't rule out a future deal entirely, they should also wait and see how their complete team looks on the court before shipping him to a different team this early into the season.